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Say that an ensign has the conn during a night shift and the captain walks onto the bridge in passing, perhaps to go to the ready room to read a report. Does the captain briefly assume command simply because they walked onto the bridge, and then immediately it goes back to the ensign after the captain leaves? For that matter, what would happen if the person in charge left the bridge without explicitly assigning the command to someone else?

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    The OOD is always designated, and the conn is not casually passed. For a captain to walk onto the bridge and assume command requires an explicit command: "I have the conn."
    – DavidW
    May 9, 2023 at 17:39
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    @DavidW Interesting, if you elaborate a bit and add that to an answer I can accept. Another question comes up then - if this is the OOD and the captain is on the bridge...can the OOD give orders to the captain? May 9, 2023 at 17:40
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    I believe it’s passed via an intricate system of topless high-fives, a la Top Gun. May 9, 2023 at 18:22
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    As to your follow-up question, I don't remember it coming up in the Star Trek I've watched (I mostly haven't seen Enterprise), but in a real military setting it theoretically could happen that way. If the OOD issues a command to a division which is currently lead by a nominal superior (say the XO, for something more realistic than the captain), then yes, those commands can legally be issued and must legally be followed, as long as the OOD has the conn.
    – DavidW
    May 9, 2023 at 22:22
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    An article about "positional authority": maxwell.af.mil/News/Commentaries/Display/Article/421504/…
    – Steve
    May 10, 2023 at 22:48

3 Answers 3

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The "officer on deck" or "officer of the deck" (commonly "OOD") has "the conn" or operational control of the vessel. The conn is passed explicitly to an officer and that officer is in full control while they have it:

SULU: Just within transporter range, sir.
KIRK: Good. Maintain position. Mister Spock, Mister Chekov, come with me. Doctor McCoy, report to the transporter room immediately. Scotty, you have the conn.
SCOTT: Aye, sir.

Star Trek, "The Tholian Web"

In "Wink of an Eye" Kirk passes the conn to Spock, who then passes it to Scotty:

KIRK: What do you read so far?
MCCOY [OC]: Can we discuss it here?
KIRK: On my way. Mister Spock, you have the conn.

Star Trek, "Wink of an Eye"

SCOTT: By that time it'll be too late.
SPOCK: I suggest that we recall the captain's words, Make them take the next step. It would seem they have taken it. And we must determine effective countermeasures. Mister Scott, you have the conn. I shall be in the medical lab.

ibid

Note that the Enterprise seems to act less formally than a fully military vessel sometimes, and the conn is passed simply by recognizing the ranking remaining officer, as in "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield":

KIRK: Lieutenant Uhura, send a security team to the pressure doors on the hangar deck.
UHURA: Aye, sir.
KIRK: Mister Spock, come with me. Scotty.
(Scott takes the conn.)

Star Trek, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

And again in the same episode when Kirk leaves the bridge to go to sickbay he casually gives the conn to Spock:

KIRK: He's in Sickbay. Remember, since you're aboard the Enterprise, you're bound by its regulations.
BELE: With your permission, Captain.
KIRK: Mister Spock.

ibid

In all the episodes I've scanned I can't find any where the captain explicitly reclaims command, but that's mostly because there are very few episodes where the captain is shown returning to the bridge, except if there is a crisis in progress and the captain needs to immediately leap into action. In most ToS episodes the away team resolves the plot and the return to the ship and resumption of normal procedures happens off screen, skipping to the ship in space and the log being dictated.

Just being the highest ranking officer present doesn't automatically grant one the conn, as this exchange between Captain Picard and Admiral Jameson shows:

PICARD: Admiral, we're approaching the Idini Star Cluster. Would you like to take the conn as we make transit?
JAMESON: Thank you, Captain. I would.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Too Short a Season"

Note that the conn is operational control, of the ship itself and its active-duty crew; the conn does not have strategic command, which is how Kirk (on an away mission) is able to order Sulu (who has to conn) to depart:

KIRK: Mister Sulu, follow your orders. Get out of here. Contact the fleet. Return if the odds are more equal. Kirk out.

Star Trek, "Errand of Mercy"

Also Riker's log entry from TNG indicates that indeed the conn is passed back to superior officers even if it isn't always made explicit:

First Officer's log, Stardate 41235.6. I am returning the conn to Captain Picard as we begin loading the vaccine supply aboard. Shortly, we hope to signal mission complete.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Code of Honour"

Also in TNG there a couple of examples of the conn being explicitly passed to a senior officer:

DATA: All systems normal, sir. Sickbay reports that Lieutenant Juarez went into labour at zero four hundred hours. We remain at station awaiting the arrival of Starship Zhukov and guest quarters have been prepared for Ambassador T'Pel.
RIKER: Very well. I have the Bridge.
DATA: Aye, sir.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Data's Day"

WORF: All systems normal, sir. We are on course for Adelphous Four. Engineering is realigning the main deflector dish. Sickbay reports Lieutenant Umbato broke two ribs during a holodeck exercise, and sensors continue to gather long-range information on the Murasaki quasar.
DATA: Very well. I have the Bridge.
WORF: Aye, sir.

ibid

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    I'm still trying to find an example where the conn has been passed and the ranking officer returns to the bridge without retaking the conn.
    – DavidW
    May 9, 2023 at 17:54
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    IIRC, the event of a ranking officer returning to the bridge but not retaking the conn never happens in ToS. My guess if such an episode exists though would be one of the ones which have officers who outrank Kirk on screen (such as S02E12). I believe there was such an episode in TAS, but unfortunately I don’t have time right now to look into it. May 10, 2023 at 11:18
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    @AustinHemmelgarn - I also do not believe that this happens in TOS (can't speak for any other series). Even when there is a flag officer on the ship, the captain is still the captain. Of note is "The Deadly Years", where Kirk is explicitly removed from command and Stocker takes command -- when Kirk is cured he enters the bridge and takes command (not just the conn) without a word to Stocker (who's not gonna argue as he hasn't a clue what to do). Kirk just enters the bridge and issues orders.
    – Basya
    May 10, 2023 at 11:25
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    At the end of TNG episode "Arsenal of Freedom", Picard returns to the bridge but does not immediately reclaim the conn from LeForge.
    – TMuffin
    May 11, 2023 at 2:14
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    @AcePL My understanding is that Starfleet in general does not differentiate the OOD from the conning officer, at least while a vessel is under way. The effective conning officer in almost all Star Trek media I’ve seen also serves most of the same roles as the OOD for a vessel that is under way. May 11, 2023 at 15:10
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When the captain of a Starfleet vessel leaves the bridge, they typically give command of the bridge to another member of their crew with a variation of the line: "You have the bridge/conn/helm."

For example, in "The Cage," Pike verbally gave command of the bridge to Number One as he was leaving it to head to sickbay.

PIKE: Continue to the Vega Colony and take care of our own sick and injured first. You have the helm. Maintain present course.

NUMBER ONE: Yes, sir.

Star Trek: The Original Series - S00E01 - "The Cage"

And in "Time and Again," Janeway verbally gave command of the bridge to Chakotay as she, Tuvok and Paris were leaving it to beam down to Pe'Nar Makull's homeworld.

JANEWAY: Mister Paris, Tuvok, you're with me. Miss Torres, meet us in transporter room two.

TORRES: On my way.

JANEWAY: Commander, you have the Bridge.

Star Trek: Voyager - S01E04 - "Time and Again"

This verbal giving of command (of the bridge) doesn't seem to be obligatory though, or at least, it isn't always adhered to.

For example, in "The Man Trap," McCoy tells Kirk he has something to show him in sickbay, and in response to that, both Kirk and Spock leave the bridge without audibly or visibly indicating who'd be in charge in their absence.

MCCOY: Dispensary to Captain.

KIRK: Kirk here.

MCCOY: We found something.

KIRK: What is it?

MCCOY: I'd rather not put it on the speaker.

Star Trek: The Original Series - S01E05 - "The Man Trap"

And in "Too Short A Season," both Picard and Riker leave the bridge to greet Admiral Jameson in one of the transporter rooms without audibly or visibly indicating who'd be in charge in their absence.

JAMESON: My wife and I will beam aboard at fifteen hundred hours, Captain. Acknowledge.

PICARD: Received and acknowledged, sir. Picard out.

DATA: Nearly fifteen hundred now, sir.

PICARD: Well, Number One, let's go and welcome the Admiral aboard.

Star Trek: The Next Generation - S01E16 - "Too Short A Season"

I'm unaware of any instances where a Starfleet officer verbally told their own captain "you have the bridge/conn/helm." For that matter, I'm unaware of any instances where the first or second officer was told that by an officer normally beneath them in the chain of command.

Riker did verbally take command of the bridge from Data with a variation of that line in "Data's Day," and Data did likewise with Worf later in the same episode, but taking command from an officer normally beneath one in the chain of command isn't the same as being given command by that person. The fact that these statements only seem to be made by the officer who's further up the default chain of command than the person they're speaking to suggests that seniority always lies with them.

Also, in each of these instances, the lower-ranked officer's shift was over, so they promptly left the bridge. I'm unaware of any instances of this type of statement being made when the lower-ranked officer's shift wasn't over.

DATA: Commander Riker, you are fifteen minutes early.

RIKER: Well, it's a very special day. I thought the father of the bride would enjoy being relieved early on the wedding day.

DATA: Thank you, sir.

RIKER: Nervous?

DATA: I cannot become nervous, sir. However, I do sense a certain anticipation regarding my role in the wedding.

RIKER: Anything to report?

DATA: All systems normal, sir. Sickbay reports that Lieutenant Juarez went into labour at zero four hundred hours. We remain at station awaiting the arrival of Starship Zhukov and guest quarters have been prepared for Ambassador T'Pel.

RIKER: Very well. I have the Bridge.

DATA: Aye, sir.

RIKER: Begin day watch.

[...]

WORF: All systems normal, sir. We are on course for Adelphous Four. Engineering is realigning the main deflector dish. Sickbay reports Lieutenant Umbato broke two ribs during a holodeck exercise, and sensors continue to gather long-range information on the Murasaki quasar.

DATA: Very well. I have the Bridge.

WORF: Aye, sir.

Star Trek: The Next Generation - S04E11 - "Data's Day"

It doesn't appear that the verbal taking of command (of the bridge) is obligatory either. Far from it, when a captain of a Starfleet vessel is shown to reenter the bridge of their own ship, it normally seems to be taken for granted that they're in command.

For example, in "The Survivors," Picard gave Riker command of the bridge before leaving it to beam down to Rana IV, but when he reentered the bridge, he didn't wait for Riker to verbally return command back to him, or specifically announce that he was taking command. He just started giving orders again.

PICARD: Number One, I have the distinct impression that we're being toyed with. Take us back to Rana Four.

RIKER: Back?

PICARD: We have unfinished business there. I need to have a talk with those two people. You have the Bridge.

[...]

RIKER: Our friend is back.

PICARD: I'm not surprised. Mister Worf, open a hailing frequency. Warn the vessel to stay clear of the planet.

WORF: Aye, sir, but they are already within firing range.

Star Trek: The Next Generation - S03E03 - "The Survivors"

And in "Future's End," Janeway gave Harry Kim command of the bridge as she, Chakotay, Tuvok and Paris were leaving it to beam down to Earth, but when she reentered the bridge, she just started giving orders again, and Kim returned to his usual post at the operations station without a word.

TUVOK: North American continent, Pacific coast. The city of Los Angeles.

JANEWAY: We've got to go down there. If it is Captain Braxton, he's the key to all this, and at the moment his ship is the only way we have of getting back to our own century. Chakotay, Tuvok, Paris, you're with me. Mister Kim, you have the bridge.

KIM: Yes, Ma'am!

[...]

JANEWAY: Helm, maintain present altitude. Keep us within transporter range. Chakotay, see if you can disable the forcefield around that timeship. B'Elanna, prepare to lock onto the timeship and beam it to cargo bay two. Ensign Kim, you have an impeccable sense of timing. Not bad for your first day in the big chair.

Star Trek: Voyager - S03E08 - "Future's End"

Even when the captain is in another part of the ship, or off the ship entirely, they appear to retain seniority over whomever's been given command of the bridge in their absence.

For example, in "Who Mourns for Adonais?," Kirk ordered Spock to fire the Enterprise's phasers while he (Kirk) was down on Pollux IV.

KIRK: All right. The temple is his power source. Let's bring him back to it. Get to cover. Mister Spock, fire those phasers.

SPOCK: Captain, you're too close.

KIRK: Fire those phasers! That's an order, Mister Spock!

Star Trek: The Original Series - S02E04 - "Who Mourns for Adonais?"

And in "Future's End," Janeway still gave Kim orders while he was in command of the bridge on Voyager and she was down on Earth.

JANEWAY: Janeway here.

KIM: Captain, we've got a problem. We received a signal from the surface. It looks like a standard greeting designed for extraterrestrials.

JANEWAY: We've been detected.

KIM: It looks that way. We tracked the signal to an observatory about twenty kilometres from your location.

JANEWAY: Transport Paris and Tuvok to those co-ordinates.

KIM: I can't do that right now, not without going into a lower orbit. The main pattern buffer is offline. B'Elanna says it could take a couple of days to repair.

JANEWAY: In that case, transmit those coordinates to Mister Tuvok's tricorder. He and Tom will have to get there using more conventional means.

KIM: Aye Captain, Kim out.

Star Trek: Voyager - S03E08 - "Future's End"


I'll now directly address your questions, and for the sake of clarity, I'll use Kim as a specific example of an ensign placed in charge of the bridge, and Janeway as a specific example of a captain...

  1. "Another question comes up then - if this is the OOD and the captain is on the bridge...can the OOD give orders to the captain?"

On those occasions when a lower ranking member of the crew (all the way up to the first officer) has been placed in charge of the bridge, the captain of that ship was consistently shown to retain command superiority even when they were in another part of the ship, or off the ship entirely. So based on that, no, Kim would not have the authority to give Janeway orders if she entered the bridge while he was in command.

  1. "Say that an ensign has the conn during a night shift and the captain walks onto the bridge in passing, perhaps to go to the ready room to read a report. Does the captain briefly assume command simply because they walked onto the bridge, and then immediately it goes back to the ensign after the captain leaves?"

It depends what you mean by "assume command." As I indicated above, Janeway would have seniority over Kim at all times, whether she's on the bridge or off it, but I don't think he'd automatically cease to be the duty officer the instant she set foot on the bridge. I think the key consideration is her apparent intent. Upon realising that Janeway has entered the bridge, Kim and any other officers present would watch her and judge how to respond based on her body language and anything she says.

So if she marches onto the bridge and starts barking orders, they'll use common sense to conclude that she wishes to take control of the bridge again, and Kim will either return to his usual station or otherwise follow whatever instructions she gives him. If it appears that she's simply passing through the bridge on her way to her ready room, though -- especially if she does so during the night shift, when she'd normally be off-duty -- then he'll likely verbally acknowledge her presence as a mark of respect, but remain in place as duty officer until she indicates that she wishes him to do otherwise.

  1. "For that matter, what would happen if the person in charge left the bridge without explicitly assigning the command to someone else?"

Starfleet has regulations dictating who the ranking officer is in various situations, which would likely come into play here.

For example, in "Disaster," Counsellor Troi unexpectedly found herself in command of the bridge based purely on the fact that she was the highest ranking officer still present after the duty officer was killed.

RO: We need to start emergency procedures. Who's the duty officer?

O'BRIEN: Lieutenant Monroe was in command, but she's dead. I believe Counsellor Troi is the senior officer on the deck.

RO: Counsellor Troi?

O'BRIEN: She carries the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Star Trek: The Next Generation - S05E05 - "Disaster"

If the only officers left on the bridge are all of equal rank, then according to Tom Paris in "Displaced," it could potentially come down to 'seniority,' i.e. time served in Starfleet.

PARIS: Oh no, I am not going to let you do this. On your feet now, Torres. That's an order.

TORRES: You can't give me orders. We're the same rank.

PARIS: I am a bridge officer, and I have seniority.

TORRES: Oh yeah, by two days!

Star Trek: Voyager - S03E24 - "Displaced"

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  • re: Piece of the Action phaser order... for one thing, Kirk is still Scotty's superior officer, so is bound to obey; for another, it's consistent with Spock's last instruction before beaming back down to the planet, so he'd have no reason to question it.
    – Anthony X
    May 9, 2023 at 22:18
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    @Anthony X - "re: Piece of the Action phaser order... for one thing, Kirk is still Scotty's superior officer, so is bound to obey;" That's precisely what my answer is arguing. Note that the question doesn't take this as a given, though, so an answer to said question shouldn't take it as a given either, but rather, make the case for that, which is what I've attempted to do. May 9, 2023 at 22:56
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    "for another, it's consistent with Spock's last instruction before beaming back down to the planet, so he'd have no reason to question it." He would if Kirk giving Scotty the conn meant that Kirk had relinquished command of the ship. Again, you seem to be taking it for granted that that's not the case, but the question doesn't take that for granted, therefore an answer shouldn't either. This episode helps to prove a point that the question is asking about. May 9, 2023 at 22:57
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    IIRC correctly there's an episode of TNG where in the transition from night to day watch, Riker comes to the bridge, gets a report from Data who had been in command, and explicitly takes command from him saying "I have the bridge" or something similar.
    – nasch
    May 10, 2023 at 16:50
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    @AcePL - The fundamental point is, either Riker had the authority to take command of the bridge from Data (whether Data liked it or not) or he didn't. The way both characters behaved in that scene suggests to me that he did. Is it completely clear and unambiguous? No. But that's what the scene implies to me. My take on this point is also influenced by the fact that no one has managed to produce a single example of a Starfleet officer telling his/her superior "You have the bridge" or "I have the bridge." All the examples listed thus far have the superior officer being the one to say that. May 15, 2023 at 11:06
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It simply needs to be clear.

Other answers have addressed in detail the stylistic differences between different COs in turning over the bridge. I'll say instead that, based on the naval traditions that Star Trek draws on, it simply needs to be clear who has operational control of the ship, and that person needs to be in the command center. (Command center is generally the bridge, but note that e.g. TNG occasionally mentions transferring command to the battle bridge).

In general, what is transferred appears to not be both what the modern Navy would consider the "conn" AND the "deck". See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Officer_of_the_deck for a better discussion and references. But in the modern US Navy, roughly, it works like this:

  • The Captain has command. He has nigh-absolute control over the ship. Where and how it steams, how its internal processes operate, etc.
  • In general, the Captain will designate someone to turn his directions on where to take the ship into specific commands to the engine room and helmsman. The person doing that translation has "the conn." The Captain (who has nigh-absolute authority, remember) can issue direct commands to the engine room, but it's bad practice. If he does so, the convention is that he has assumed the conn, and will need to redelegate that function when he's done with it. It's vaguely like how a database admin can run arbitrary queries, but usually should use stored procedures.
  • There is another piece in the modern Navy: the deck. Captains retain some vestiges of humanity, and every few days they need to sleep. During that time, they leave someone in charge of the command deck. That person does not independently have nigh-absolute authority. Instead, the Captain leaves instructions on how he wants the ship run whenever he isn't personally running it (his "standing orders") and the Officer of the Deck (OOD) operates the ship in accordance with the Captain's standing orders. The OOD has essentially the same relationship to the conn as the Captain would, except that the Captain could give overriding orders to either/both at any point.

Star Trek captains do not appear to delegate the conn as understood today, despite the language used. Instead, they appear to be appointing deck officers. Today, there is a certain amount of ceremony around that handoff, which serves to ensure that it is absolutely clear at all times who is in charge.

That does not appear to be the case for most Star Trek vessels that we see. We very rarely see normal watch changes in the shows, in the same way that we rarely see routine hygiene: the screen only shows what is interesting, and something interesting happening almost invariably means that the captain has assumed direct responsibility.

When Kirk or Picard leaves the bridge, they are usually passing the deck to someone senior that they have worked with extensively and communicate with well. This situation allows less formal formulations to still be clear. Another answer noted that Janeway was consistently more formal about passing the conn (deck)— that is exactly what you would expect, since she has less experienced officers who she does not have the same level of trust with.

So, answering your actual questions:

  • The captain always has command. Period.
  • If an ensign is running the ship under the captain's orders, the captain still has command and can give new orders at any time, regardless of his location.
  • The ensign's watch lasts until he is relieved. Period.
  • Good practice is probably for the captain to make it clear when he intends to take more direct command (e.g. by sitting in the special chair) and when he intends to stop doing that. But it's not strictly mandatory.
  • If the captain voluntarily left the bridge without leaving anyone else in charge, he would still be in charge. That would be extremely bad practice. Everyone should know where to go to communicate with command, and that location is generally the bridge. The Star Trek shows have not thus far shown us a lot of irresponsible COs, but I assume a captain playing hooky would be treated similarly to if the captain were missing: on discovery, command devolves to the highest immediately available level in the chain of command and that person tries very hard to find a superior officer, taking command personally until such time as s/he does.
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    Note there are occasions when Kirk et al. are on the bridge and Kirk will still give Chekov or Sulu the conn, which fits your description of actual practice. I didn't know how to work it into my answer, since it was already getting long and confusing.
    – DavidW
    May 11, 2023 at 23:59
  • The helmsman, in the forward left seat, directly takes the kind of commands that the connman would take on a navy ship (e.g. ‘take us to orbit’ is a very high level command that takes many different actual control inputs, but the automation takes care of that), so there is no need for two separate positions.
    – Jan Hudec
    May 12, 2023 at 5:37
  • “The captain always has command. Period.” is, I think, the important part. Having the bridge/deck/(conn) is not about authority, but about responsibility.
    – Jan Hudec
    May 12, 2023 at 5:41
  • Give that Star Trek is explicitly based on the British (not US) Navy, this answer is largely inaccurate
    – Valorum
    May 12, 2023 at 6:30
  • @Valorum if you would like to write an answer based on the British system instead, please do so.
    – fectin
    May 12, 2023 at 11:28

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